Friday, 29 February 2008

Why do We Still Have Theologians?

Whilst dredging through the numerous - and very repetitive - stream of books published in response to The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins, in case anybody has managed not to hear about it by now) I come across one particular argument quite frequently. It basically runs thus:
"Dawkins only ever deals with the easily refutable arguments. No theologian worth his salt uses those arguments any more."
The complaint is that Dawkins only deals with outdated or simplistic arguments for the existence of god(s), such as the ontological argument, the argument from design and Pascal's Wager. The theologians cry foul, claiming that they have newer, better arguments and that Dawkins is shooting at straw men. A couple of issues arise from this complaint that, certainly to me at least, reveal problems with the whole concept of theology.

1. The disconnect between what theologians believe and what normal people believe

My experience is that most "theists on the street" - warning, anecdotal evidence alert! - who have stopped to think about the existence of god(s) at all will convince themselves with one of the aforementioned easily refutable arguments, or with something equally simplistic.
Theologians, however, have much more complicated looking arguments that talk about god(s) in much more abstract terms. Often these arguments resemble the cosmological "first cause" argument. Even if the first cause argument weren't crap (which it is), the only thing it claims to prove is the existence of a being of indeterminate origin, nature and power who flicked a switch at the start of the Universe.
Many of the theologians' other arguments run along similar lines. What they "prove" bears very little resemblance to what the person on the street believes. The theologian will then, with dubious logic, show how this nebulous "first causer" (or whatever) is in fact the Christian god (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu etc.).

2. Theology is totally self-justifying
The only arguments in favour of theology as a discipline are theological in nature. Theology exists to investigate a phenomenon the theologians tell us only they can correctly define. Over the centuries they have created and perpetuated their own little reality within which they perform their "investigations", which generally amount to nothing more than empty philosophical ravings. They talk about concepts like god(s) and the afterlife for which we have no proof. In fact, one of the chief jobs of the theologian is to ensure that the definitions of these concepts remain conveniently outside the sphere of scientific enquiry.
If theologians examined the societal effects of god-belief they would more properly be called anthropologists or historians. If they examined its effect on individuals they might be psychologists or neuro-scientists. There is no rational element of religion that cannot be explored within genuine academic disciplines. This leaves the irrational stuff; the province of the theologian.

It seems to me that theology exists only to perpetuate itself. Why not just let the philosophers, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, psychologists and neuro-scientists get on with exploring why we believe and how? In fact, science and philosophy are much better equipped (ie. with open minds) to answer the questions posed by theology in a rational fashion.

For reference, books I have ploughed through include God's Undertaker - Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox, The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins' God by Alistair McGrath, The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day and Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Peer Review Evil says Torygraph

The Torygraph newspaper, last bastion of conservative common sense - or whatever they're calling it these days - had an article the other day entitled "Peer review: the myth of the noble scientist" in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham*, Terence Kealey, puts forward the myth that scientists are noble creatures - we're not - and suggests that the peer-review process is fatally flawed.

He begins with this little snippet of wisdom:
"One day coffee is bad for us, then it's good, then it's bad again. The generous explanation for these see-saws is that science is always developing our understanding. But there is a more sinister concern: fraud."
What? The reason that the public gets the impression that coffee or red wine or sweeteners are bad for us one week and geed the next is because the media insists on combing recent science papers for any slight suggestion of the above and publishing stories with headlines like "Shock News: Coffee Cures Alzheimers!" or similar. This idea that the scientific community is see-sawing back and forth is false. Published papers may conflict, but the truly scientific approach is to weigh all of the evidence and come to a conclusion, not wave your hands in the air and scream "fraud!"

It is true that fraud exists in the scientific community, as it does pretty much anywhere you find humans. One of the jobs of the peer-review process is to minimise the impact of fraudulent claims, even if it cannot directly test for them. Also, outside of peer-review, the scientific community is very good at picking up fraudulent claims. However, these processes take time - just as with everything else in the gradualist methodology of science - as Jan Hendrik Schön proved by getting more than 25 papers out and winning several awards before being picked up for manufacturing data on a monumental scale.
"The myth is that science is the noble search for truth. The reality is that scientists are selfish. In the old days, scientists often published secretly to safeguard - and profit from - their discoveries."
Science is the search for truth. It's nobility is surely dependent on the participants who are, as we are well aware, only human. Of course there are selfish scientists, fraudulent scientists, incompetent scientists and so on. They are ordinary people. However, their job requires them to be able to defend their work against critics and the community in which they work is strongly meritocratic, requiring a certain selfishness in order to survive. This said, there are many scientists who are perfectly capable of working in large groups and sharing information and I have benefitted from several willing to give up their time and energy to provide assistance that does not benefit their own research.

Kealey goes on to explain that peer-review creates a "closed club" that can block extraordinary or unexpected findings and allows "unscrupulous" reviewers to steal the ideas they read in review papers. I know this is only anecdotal but nobody in my office can remember an incident of a peer-reviewer stealing ideas from review papers. It would probably require a conspiracy of reviewers in order for that to occur.

Science may be somewhat of a closed club, but I see that as a requirement for it to maintain its credibility. Kealey says we should open up science publishing and allow everyone to publish their own papers but I think this would be horribly damaging to the edifice of science. Suddenly any old creationist nutjob could publish their papers about how God did it and the public (and the media) would have no way of telling how reliable the research was. We'd just be giving undue credibility to pseudoscientific nonsense.

The peer-review process may have flaws (it is slow and it may occasionally disallow "ground-breaking" papers) but it is about the best system we could have. It allows for some measure of fraud detection. It ensures that the wildest claims must be backed up with evidence. It may often swing towards the status quo but then extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. Leakey should consider what science would be like if we removed peer-review: unrealiable and often meaningless.

*As I understand it, the University of Buckingham is a private university founded in the 1970s as an arts college. I cannot find an entry for it on the Times league tables available to me. It has the dubious honour of being "the only private University in the United Kingdom".

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Just a Block of Wood? Er, yes it is.

I just happened to be dabbling in the fascinating stream of news being generated daily by Christian Today - your one stop source for the information you really need, so long as that information is to do with cardinals or ministers having podcasts - when I saw the words "embryology bill" in the Top Stories section. Well me being me, never one to risk missing something I can rant about, I had a little read.

It turns out the Lawyers Christian Fellowship - who believe in "witnessing to the legal profession by speaking the good news of Christ" - has released a new "viral" marketing scheme intended to make people oppose the HFE Bill. You can watch it here on YouTube if you like. I wouldn't really bother though as I'm about to describe it to you anyway.

The video consists of a man chainsawing a block of wood into the shape of a foetus and ends with the words "just a block of wood?" and a link to the Passion for Life campaign website. Am I supposed to watch this and have the revelation that the block of wood is, in fact, not a block of wood? Am I meant to come to the striking revelation that just by making something foetus shaped you can in fact make it into an actual human person? Would it then be wrong of me to 'kill' this block of wood? I don't get it. In fact, just today at lunch I made my mashed potato into the shape of a foetus and then devoured it, thus presumably making me guilty of murder.

Of course I don't believe that abortion is murder so I guess I'm not really guilty of anything, but I am in their eyes. Honestly! Not just a block of wood? No, it's just a block of wood that bears a striking resemblance to a foetus. So what? This viral marketing lark doesn't often make sense to me. Sometimes the videos are funny or clever but most of the time it's like this one. It won't have any effect on an already rational person because it is just a sodding block of wood no matter how much you write "it's a baby" on it!

In addition to this, they're lawyers! I know that's not a very logical argument - all right, not at all a logical argument - but their job is to defend or prosecute a case regardless of the actual guilt or innocence of those involved. They are often paid to defend the indefensible. Maybe Christian lawyers always only defend the innocent and prosecute the guilty, I just don't think it's likely.

In other news, the Atheist Society have set up a Facebook group in opposition to the Passion for Life group. We currently lag behind by about 1,000 members but we're new so give us time. I urge anyone who uses Facebook to look up "Passion for Reason: Supporting the HFE Bill" and join. Also, if you read the information on the bill and agree with it, write to your MP (in the UK, obviously) saying so. The Passion for Lifers are doing this and it'd be a shame for any MPs to get the wrong idea.
Finally, there's a petition on 10 Downing Street's e-petition scheme about it too. I know they always ignore these petitions but do it anyway. It can't do any harm after all.

I leave you with this quote from Christian Today:
"We want people to remember that the life of a human being, made in the image of God, is incredibly precious and that this reality must inform what legislation should and what it should not permit."
I'm glad their views only apply to those people made in the image of God. Us godless heathens can presumably get on with our lives safe in a society who's laws are unmolested by religious nonsense...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Cartooning: The New High Risk Job

Remember those Danish cartoons from a while back? The ones of Muhammad? The ones that weren't really all that good? In fact some of them were rubbish. Not, however, rubbish enough to warrant violent protests and attacks on Danish embassies. But then, some scamp from one of the more extremist groups had added a few images of his own to really get the critical juices flowing.

So it's all understandable really. Someone publishes a non-flattering image of a man who allegedly lived hundreds of years ago and claimed to be inspired by God and of course the first thing you think of is "I must go and burn down an embassy, or at least a flag." (Although I have nothing against flag burning per se, if it makes you feel better go for it!)

Now, I'd have completely misunderstood what was going on if it wasn't for the moderates, who weighed in to explain things. Apparently, the poor muslims were complaining that they were being depicted as violent and extremist. It was a complete coincidence, then, that their complaint took the form of a violent and extreme protest and anyway we shouldn't have provoked them in the first place should we? I mean, we crazy liberals in the west should know better than to have a free press and a passable record on freedom of speech. Silly us.

And now it turns out that there was an (alleged) plot to murder one of the cartoonists involved. As I said, the pictures weren't all that good, but they weren't that bad. After all, if publishing crap was a good enough reason to have someone killed, we'd have got rid of Jeffrey Archer years ago.

The Danish media response has been to reprint the cartoons again. Which I think is fun for two reasons.
  1. We can see if the original cartoons provoke the same response without the later additions. It appears that so far the response has been somewhere between muted and non-existent.
  2. If they keep on poking the wasps' nest with sticks maybe they'll provoke another reaction that'll be even more fun for muslim PR to deal with. Or, he said a little too optimistically, they'll get used to criticism and stop reacting so badly.
A spokesman for the London Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre said the following:
"They are humiliating and racist. Muslims love the Prophet more than anyone - even their own families - and have a very strong belief that he is the messenger of God."
I don't see how the cartoons are racist. For one, they are targeting a religion. Also, nobody seems to have stood up and suggested that the only reason they find the cartoons humiliating and offensive is that their religion tells them that they should. I am also more than a little concerned when anyone says something like "we love X imaginary religious figure more than our own families." In which case I feel sorry for those families. It seems to me that the cartoons make a point about the disconnect between the moderates preaching peace and the extremists practicing violence.

People should have the right to believe whatever nonsense they want in private. However, people should also have the right to criticise those beliefs just as they can a political or philosophical belief. There should be no special protection for religious beliefs. There should certainly be no excuse for a violent response. It seems to me that in order for religions to get rid of their extremists, the moderates have to refuse to defend their indefensible actions. And with Islam, there just isn't enough of that happening.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Divine IVF

I was perusing the websites of some of the pro-life Christian type groups who are opposing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (HFEB) and I became increasingly aware of two things. The first, slightly more serious thing, is that they are very good at casually misrepresenting the facts in order to foment a sense of panic amongst the general public. They know, after all, that most people aren't going to go and read a 150 page piece of potential future legislation, so they are free to say things that, whilst not always technically incorrect, are easy to misunderstand. The human-animal hybrid thing is one good example.

The second, less serious thing, is that many of these Christian groups are also opposed to IVF because it does not follow "God's law" or because it creates surplus embryos that are not implanted. However, it strikes me that the foundation of the Christian faith is an act of alleged celestial fertility treatment.
God, too impatient to wait or to arrange a more practical scenario, has a fling with an engaged woman, magicking a foetus out of just one set of DNA, - perhaps an example of early cloning in action - and then high-tails it back to heaven, leaving his angels to take the role of Jeremy Kyle and make all parties take a 'lie detector' test before... Oh wait, no, he leaves them to patiently explain to Mary and Joseph that he - God - couldn't wait any longer and just had to get his cosmic rocks off with the first woman who rode past on a donkey, and that it's absolutely fine if they get married because they didn't actually 'do it' they just, you know, had a bit of a fondle behind the ox-sheds and she's still a virgin, honest.
I mean, he's supposed to be omnipotent! Surely you set the happy couple up in a palatial abode with hot and cold running slaves (they like those in the bible, especially stoned) and then sit them down and patiently explain things to them, in order to be sure that the parenting needs of the future messiah are properly met. Otherwise, you're clearly not considering the "need for a father" and anyway, God isn't human so isn't Jesus also a kind of human hybrid himself? Although perhaps a celestial-human hybrid rather than an animal one. Given that the Bible has no information about this we should probably turn to a more reliable reference. I believe that the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game covers the topic in much greater detail and probably with a similar level of historicity...

Friday, 8 February 2008

Muslims for the Ethical Treatment of MRSA

Now, I'm not normally one to quote the Torygraph, but it seems that there has been a slight culture clash between the cultures of Islam and medical hygiene. It seems that a few muslim medical students have been refusing to roll up their sleeves and scrub up properly in line with hygiene regulations designed to reduce the spread of infections. You know, like MRSA. That most friendly fluffy antibiotic resistant bacterium that just loves to kill people in hospitals.

The Islamic Medical Association had this to say:
"No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow"
You know what? They're right, because any doctor who refuses to do this on such preposterous grounds should be sacked. Simple as that. Apparently they have the right to modesty. Well I suspect the patient has the right to live. How did that little quote go anyway?
First, do no harm.
So, when the potential students roll up, just give them a questionnaire:
  1. Will you follow the hygiene laws, put in place to stop patients dying?
  2. Will you treat people, even when they have diseases your religion says are sinful?
  3. Will you, in fact, apply science based medicine to all of your cases?
If you answered 'no' to any of the above questions, please sod off. I hear there are many fine places in made up subjects like theology that might suit you better.

An Archbishop Says What?

Although I have to say I wasn't entirely surprised to read the latest piece of drivel to dribble out of our friendly local primate - Are CofE types primates like the Catholics? Ah who cares, he is a primate either way. Apparently we need to adopt some aspects of sharia law in the UK in order to make our muslim friends feel at home.

You know what? No we oughtn't. In fact, we shouldn't just oughtn't, we should damn well complain, although probably in a very polite British sort of a way. After all, he is only an archbishop, and nobody really listens to him any more. Except maybe those dratted Christians, and there's quite a few of them...

Obviously, he is careful to make sure that he doesn't want any of the "extreme" elements like stonings and reductions in women's rights. What he wants is, apparently, all the good fluffy bits of sharia law that don't hurt anyone's civil liberties. Although which bits of sharia law those might be, I'm not too sure. To be honest, it's not even the extremity (or lack thereof) of the laws that matters here, it's the fact that having parallel systems of laws for different religions is a really stupid idea.

We shouldn't change our laws "to make other people feel at home here." Either they were born here or they emigrated here, and they can abide by the laws of this country - and enjoy the right to have them changed by the due democratic process. If the latter, I would suspect that some of them are escaping the brutality of sharia law as practiced in some countries. How much more at home do we make those people feel by introducing it?

Also, is it not odd to imagine a system whereby one is asked one's religious preference before going to court? It seems to me that as an atheist I might benefit from being able to unscrupulously choose whichever system is most beneficial to me at the time. They wouldn't be allowed to deny me the right after all. This country is effectively - and should be officially - a secular state. The law should not recognise religion as an excuse to be treated differently just as it should not be discriminate against people for their religion.

Finally, would it not cost the state a whole bunch more money to have multiple systems of law functioning side by side? That's not really relevant I guess as the main thing we need to do here is make sure we don't end up back in the sodding dark ages trying people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A Week Without Posting? Dear oh Dear.

It appears that I have been neglecting my (self-appointed) duties, but I was out of town - as I believe they say in that quaint rural colony across the Atlantic - doing science. They don't have the internet in forn parts so I was also away from the blogosphere. Ignore those people who try to tell you it's a blogodisc that is actually flat, because it's not. It might, in fact, be banana or maybe donut shaped but it sure as hell ain't flat.

So, on to business. There are a couple of things in my head that are itching to be blogged about right now, but I need to give them some more thought. One is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (HFEB) or, more specifically, the pro-life opposition to it. Sadly, some of the stupidest opposition is on Facebook so I'm not going to link to it here. Suffice to say, one of their chief concerns is the creation of
"Animal-Human Hybrids..." (Cue pipe organ solo. Take it away Tarquin!)
complete with sinister capital letters as if to suggest that scientists will be creating a half duck, half man tomorrow.

Most of the opposition comes from the anti-abortion lobby because the bill also outlines the ethical and sensible use of embryonic stem-cells by science. You know, that science with the potential to help those with crippling and debilitating medical conditions?

Some of the opposition also comes form the anti-gay-marriage crowd as the Bill also proposes altering birth certificates to allow for same-sex couples, or as they put it
"Removing the Need for a Father..." (The organ solo should still be going.)
Yes, that's right, we're going to exterminate all men! Mwahahaha! Oh wait, we're not. We're just liberalising laws about parenthood in an increasingly secular society.

Others are working on more reasoned type arguments based on closer reading of the literature on this. I'm going to stick to ranting as it's easier, and I have my own "literature" to read. Once I've sponged my melted brains off the floor I hope to provide a rant-based review of The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day. The pseudonym pretty much sums up the author being both arrogant (The voice of God? Pull the other one, it's got little flying pigs dangling on it) and using a pun at the same time. Now that's multitasking!